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Selling their Seoul?


Cambodian youth continues to embrace South Korean fashion at a frightening pace. But just what is it that allures the Kingdom’s youngsters to the style?

Two Korean fashion fans strike a pose at Sorya shopping centre.  Photo by: ELEONORE SOK

Kea Seyha, 28, converts Khmer coiffures into Korean creations at his salon on Kampuchea Krom. Photo by: ELEONORE SOK

FTER the heavy curtains are pushed aside, loud music assaults the ears and a world of freedom and flirtation welcomes customers into its midst. It is a planet solely populated by teenaged inhabitants, many of whom have told their parents they are at school. Some slouch on deep sofas, entwined in one another’s passionate embrace, some stand at the bar smoking, others sip alcoholic beverages while eying members of the opposite sex. As the first electronic beats of a song by South Korean girl band 2NE1 roll from the speakers, most of the teenagers rush the dancefloor, shimmying passionately. The time is 4pm, on a Sunday afternoon. Welcome to Free World Club at Pencil shopping centre; the place to be for young Korean style addicts.

One girl leaves the bump and grind of the dancefloor temporarily, stepping outside for some fresh air. Her style is particularly studied: long auburn hair, brown contact lenses and glossy pink lipstick are set against a short purple dress and fur-trimmed cardigan, while her long, slim legs teeter on stilettos.

Nine has been interested in Korean fashion for about one year, largely because of Korean music. Her K-pop favourites include Girls’ Generation and Kara, both bands that trade on attractive young women singing and dancing to pop music containing a mixture of Korean and English lyrics.

“Everybody wants to be Korean because they have large eyes, clear skin and beautiful hair,” says Nine.

The slim 19-year-old buys the majority of her clothing here at Pencil shopping centre on Street 214. The mall is dotted with small shops in thrall to Korean style and Dee, the owner of Honey Shop, is a mirror image of most of his dedicated customers.

Dee breaks down the basics of the Korean look: men should wear skinny jeans with a gaudy T-shirt or shirt and a slim jacket in denim or leather to add a rock’n’roll touch. Colourful sneakers and big sports bags complete the look, along with an optional cap. The haircut is essential – a lock of hair covering one eye, and the colour is ideally either red or blonde.

Women can wear shorts or dresses, the shorter the better, and accessories are a must: plastic jewellery, big watches, bug-eye glasses and hair bands are the order of the day. For feet, high heels are standard, while wearing the same sneakers as the guys heralds a hip-hop bent. Kitschy designs in fancy colours should adorn manicured fingernails and, once again, the hair warrants special attention. Some have a short, edgy cut but most wear it long, either ironed straight, crimped, layered or curled. Vanity contact lenses in green, grey or blue are the finishing touch and cost $4.

A dress costs about $20 at Pencil; significantly more than at most markets. At a shop known as Li Da Collection, skinny jeans go for $12 and trainers about $10. All of the clothes sold here come from Thailand or China. Nothing is actually sourced from South Korea; it is too expensive to import.

Nana, a friend of Dee, strolls around the shopping centre as she explains: “The owners of the shops say that [the stock] comes from Korea but it comes from Thailand. If you say that [it comes from Korea], you can make prices higher.”

The cost of this particular sartorial fixation brings its own problems. A complete outfit purchased at Pencil would cost at least $50. “You have to be rich if you want to be fashionable. It’s more a fashion for the middle class,” confirms Dee.

One area of Korean style which doesn’t provide a sharp burn to the pockets of its disciples is the haircuts. Most successful salons have word-of-mouth, circulated by the cognoscenti, to thank for that success.

Korean Style Hairdresser, located on Kampuchea Krom, is one such establishment. The little pink shop is ably manned by its owner, Kea Seyha, 28, who is well-known for his magical scissorship and bargain $2 prices. Kea Seyha learned the key tricks to his trade during a six-month stint in Thailand alongside a Korean hairdresser.

“I create the styles by myself,” he says, while continuing to cut the hair of a customer. “I find inspiration on TV, or in publications like Ray, a famous Thai magazine, or the Japanese magazine My Idol.”

Ca Di, already sporting a Korean haircut, sits patiently while Kea Seyha snips away. “[At this salon] It’s very Korean. I like K-style,” he says. “I don’t know why I like it, maybe because the most famous people now in Asia are Korean.”

There are also fans that live their passion secretly, like Sophea, 21, a student at Pannasastra University.

“For me it’s forbidden to be dressed like that, and I’m not allowed to go out very much,” she says during a break from dancing at Free World Club. “My parents disagree with the young generation’s style. They say we just follow foreigners.”

While some Khmer families view Korean fashion with suspicion, there are those who embrace it. Chen Kim Houy, 45, is a case in point. Her daughter, Chen Li Da, 21, runs a shop at Pencil and is bedecked in a short flower-print dress and heels.

“I am happy that my daughter is modern,” says Chen Kim Houy proudly. “I leave her to do what she wants, her father does too, and nobody says anything in the family. [Her] clothes can be in the Korean style but [in other ways] she stays Cambodian.”

Hallyu – the Korean wave of entertainment – swept Cambodia three years ago, driven by the media. The 2009 launch of television channel My TV, a subsidiary of the Cambodian Television Network (CTN), gave the movement a significant boost. It devotes 80 percent of airtime to Korean content.

For Youk Chhang, director of the Cambodian Documentation Centre, this issue has to be considered in light of Cambodia’s recent past.

“They [young people] like Korean style but they don’t know why; it’s true. They don’t have another choice. There is a lack of options. There was no style in Cambodia for the last 30 years, no design school, no fashion,” he says. “They don’t need to be blonde and white to be beautiful, they don’t realise that they are already beautiful”.

With the influence of hallyu growing all over the world, but largely in Asia, there seems to be no stopping the spread of Korean style. Angelia Teo, content director of WGSN Pacific, a fashion trend-analysis and research service, says the future will be influenced by a “superhybridity of subcultures” not just in Cambodia, but all over the world.

“In other words, it is a new fusion and one that is facilitated by conversations occurring between nations such as Korea and Cambodia. We see Asia rising as a powerhouse in this scenario and really informing aesthetics, design and fashion,” she says.

The Cambodia Fashion Council (CFC), however, is keen for Cambodia to assert itself on the global stage eventually. It is one of the few organisations pushing the Kingdom towards embracing its own unique voice in the fashion industry.

“Korean fashion in Cambodia is just copying. They see, they like, they imitate,” says Haniz Yasin, secretary general of the CFC. “Imitation is not good, because fashion is all about your own personality.

“This is a big issue. There are new designers in Cambodia. Our work is to incubate the next generation who try to create fashion. It’s just the beginning, it will take time.”

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